Educationists said retarded children couldn’t be taught, so six years ago seventy Toronto parents got together to prove them wrong. They founded an experimental school that has since confounded the experts and has inspired other cities to tackle this heart-rending social problem



Educationists said retarded children couldn’t be taught, so six years ago seventy Toronto parents got together to prove them wrong. They founded an experimental school that has since confounded the experts and has inspired other cities to tackle this heart-rending social problem



Educationists said retarded children couldn’t be taught, so six years ago seventy Toronto parents got together to prove them wrong. They founded an experimental school that has since confounded the experts and has inspired other cities to tackle this heart-rending social problem


ON A COLD November evening in Toronto six years ago, seventy worried fathers and mothers finished supper early and hurried to meet in a basement room in Carlton Street United Church.

There were young and middle-aged parents in the group, well-dressed and not-so-well-dressed, people of obviously different social and economic position. Some smiled and managed a few words of conversation with those around them, others sat withdrawn and silent. Except for the unusually high percentage of fathers, they might have been any homeand-school club gathered to meet with their children’s teachers and plan for the school year.

But these fathers and mothers belonged to no home-and-school club for, although they paid taxes and had children of school age, their children attended no schools. No educational authorities had called them together for none was interested in their problem.

They were there because they had one heartbreaking thing in common: each was shouldering the terrible burden of having brought into the world a mentally retarded child.

The term “mentally retarded” is a loose one, lumping together all the degrees of mental deficiency below the IQ (intelligence quotient) of seventy which scientifically categorizes a person as “dull normal.” Between one and two percent of all Canadians fall into this general group.

As the fathers and mothers who met that night in 1948 could testify, mentally retarded children are found in every race, class and creed. Their backgrounds are good and bad, their bodies strong and weak, their homes in cities and on farms. Many

have parents and brothers and sisters of aboveaverage mentality.

Wherever they are born, tragedy follows in their wake.

Dr. William Hawke, chief psychiatrist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, who has examined hundreds of such children, once confided that he would rather tell parents their child had fatal leukemia than break the news to them that he was mentally deficient.

“A death in the family is softened and eased as the years go by,” he explained. “But the birth of a seriously retarded infant can be a life sentence of misery to a couple. It can break their hearts, empty their pocketbooks and wreck their lives.”

Doctors recognize two different origins of mental deficiency. In the first, for some unknown reason a child is born with a brain that just never develops properly. In the second, the brain develops normally, but then something (known or unknown) happens to injure it.

Group No. 1 includes among others, mongoloids (children with thick bodies, slanted eyes and Asiatic features), microcephalies (children with tiny heads and inadequately developed brains) and hydrocephalics (children with abnormally large heads due to fluid absorption). Some physicians believe heredity may have something to do with the children in this group; other medical men, noting the high frequency of mongoloid children as the first-born of extremely young parents, or the lastborn of ageing parents, suspect some sort of glandular imbalance in the mother.

Children in Group No. 2 may have been exposed to an infection before birth (a mother who develops German measles in her first three months of pregnancy may produce a mentally deficient child), or they may have been born during a prolonged and difficult labor, with haemorrhages and other complications, or with extreme jaundice due to the Rh blood incompatibility of instance — well-educated, well-to-do people who had been delighted when they found they were to have a sister for their first daughter. From the start, however, they found themselves worrying about her. Surely it was unnatural for a baby to be so good. Doors slammed and she didn’t cry, lights shone in her eyes and she never objected. She had to be urged to eat. When she was six months old the family doctor suggested they take her to a neurologist who examined her and pronounced the shocking truth: Judy would never grow up mentally, she would never be a normal girl. Subsequent testing revealed an IQ of thirtythree, so that at three she had the mentality of a year-old baby. She was a beautiful child, clean and neat and amenable to discipline, but she walked wit h jerky movements and she couldn’t talk.'

their parents. Sometimes they are perfectly healthy infants but suffer an accident in childhood, or contract a brain-injuring disease like encephalitis or meningitis. Many children in this group are handsome youngsters. It is only as they grow older, displaying little interest in their surroundings and developing abnormally slowly, that their parents discover something is wrong.

Both types of retarded child were represented that November night in Carlton Street Church.

There were Judy’s parents, for

Then there were Graham’s parents, bright and intelligent young people with three normal children besides their retarded first-born son. He had been born a good-looking well-built boy and it wasn’t until he had grown into t he toddler stage that he didn’t seem to be doing things easily. They asked their doctor about it, but he fold them not to worry. When he was five Graham’s mother took him to kindergarten but t he principal sent him home, suggesting an examination at a mental clinic. He was found to have the mentality of a child half his age.

And there was Susie whose mother and father were at t he meet mg, middleaged people with eleven other healthy, happy children. Susie was t he youngest.

She had been a premature baby but her mother recalls that “she never cried so we never thought anything was the matter with her.” Early in infancy Susie began to show definite mongoloid characteristics. At ten she had an IQ below twenty-five, couldn’t talk, couldn’t feed herself neatly, and stubbornly resisted discipline.

Little Arthur Slept a Lot

Eight - year - old Arthur’s parents weren’t there, for both were dead, but his maternal grandmother was. In fact if was she who had been largely instrumental in calling the meeting together. Arthur’s soldier father had been killed early in the war, before he was born. His mother died two years later, never knowing her baby was mentally retarded, and he was adopted by his grandparents. It wasn’t too much t rouble to care for Arthur at first, for he was a good baby who slept a lot and seldom cried. When he was almost two, he developed a nasty boil on his back

and his grandmother called the family doctor, who was less concerned with the boil than with the child’s peculiar way of shaking his head in his crib. He advised that the child be sent to hospital for an examination—maybe there was a growth of some sort pressing on the brain. Two days later his grandmother was told there was no growth; the child was mentally retarded.

When she asked what could be done for the boy they told her there was no known cure for mental deficiency. Air injections into the brain, suppressive drug treatments, endocrine therapy and a new environment have all been tested experimentally with no significant results. Treatment may be effective in the rare case due to lack of thyroid, and the still rarer case due to pressure or a growth on the brain may respond successfully to surgery. Rut for the vast majority of cases, nothing can be done.

“Send him to Orillia,” they advised, voicing the opinion of most doctors that an institution such as the

Ontario Hospital School at Orillia on Lake Simcoe—is the best place for a retarded child.

This was easier said than done. Provincial hospital schools provide training as domestics, shoemakers, gardeners and hired men to those considered capable of learning. However they are dismally overcrowded and have inadequate staffs, outmoded buildings and long waiting lists. The school at Orillia, for example, has 2,152 patients on its books and as many more clamoring for admission, while a new institution at Smiths Falls, not yet completed, will house twenty-four hundred. A government spokesman observes unofficially that if there were six similar institutions in Ontario they’d be filled too. Today, hospital schools are extremely selective in their admissions. Children under six are rarely admitted.

But, however doctors may argue and advise, hundreds of parents refuse to institutionalize their children for emotional or religious reasons.

“God gave us this child and he is as much a part of our family as our other children,” they say. Or, “Even the best institution in the world can’t give a child a father’s love or a mother’s good night kiss.”

Arthur’s grandparents, like most of the parents at the Carlton Street meeting, decided to keep their child at home. Watching the lad grow up without friends or schooling, however, they were distressed. Although Canada’s public-school system maintains auxiliary or “opportunity” classes for feeble - minded children whose IQs register in the fifty to seventy bracket, all ten provincial governments legally wash their hands of children like Arthur, whose IQ is below fifty and is therefore considered “uneducable,” Left at home, they languish without playmates, recreation, training or interests.

When Arthur was eight his grandmother sought a private tutor. She telephoned a friend who was instructing a retarded boy but it was impossible for her to take on a second pupil. However, the conversation developed a discussion between the teacher, the mother of the other retarded boy and Arthur’s grandmother. They agreed there must, be some sort of specialized training to benefit a retarded child— something that would include music and play with other retarded children.

“Socialization” was a word for what they sought. “If we could arrange it so these children could learn to be proud of their accomplishments, rather than frustrated and ashamed of their failures, they’d be happier and they’d fit into their homes and their community better too,” they said. They decided to write letters to the Voice of the People column of the Toronto Star. The mother of a mongoloid boy about Arthur’s age replied and expressed the hopes of all such parents when she wrote, “We were shocked and saddened when our doctor told us our son would be a baby forever, never talk or walk.

I am hoping that through your letter and God’s help we can form an organization and get a place where these children can make friends and do whatever they can do.”

The following week, a group met and arranged the first general meeting for parents and friends. About thirty were expected but seventy turned up. They elected an executive and named their unique organization the Parents Council for Retarded Children.

What emerged was the common desire for education or training for their children. They wanted them to learn as much about the world as possible, for their own protec. ion. They wanted them to have supervised recreation, to meet and play with other children and to learn good habits and discipline by imitation and example as normal children do. They felt that even retarded children would respond to a special kind of education, with emphasis on practical matters rather than theory, if they were taught in small groups by patient understanding teachers.

They decided to write members of the legislature asking that the Public School Act be amended to provide classes for the mentally retarded. They found they couldn’t get it. The mentally retarded child was apparently nobody’s baby, educationally. The i Department of Education disclaimed him and so did the Department of Health.

The former had shown enough interest to set up an experimental community-sponsored five-year project in Kirkland Lake in 1947 “to see what these children can do,’’ but was far from willing to take on the full financial burden of educating all retarded children in Ontario—especially since nobody had yet proved it could be done. The Department of Health was sympathetic but felt the project was an educational matter.

Parents Council spent the next year and a half trying to interest the government and the public in its cause. Public meetings with guest speakers brought the problem into the open. Private individuals and community organizations were approached for help. In the spring of 1950 things came to a head, j The Department of Health set up a three-year experimental project in Toronto called the Woodgreen Pilot Unit, utilizing public funds. Registration was limited to thirty children aged six to twelve, proportionately mongoloid and bra in-injured. Located on

downtown Queen Street, in an old church hall, it employed three experienced instructors and a trained psychologist. They scientifically explored the abilities of the young pupils and attempted to maintain a working relationship with parents.

Their Appeals Backfired

Now applying for its second extension, it aims to discover what can be done in terms of training for a representative group of retarded children, and whether results will suggest a diminishing need for institutional care.

As it happened, the Woodgreen experiment included few children of council parents. Youngsters had been selected from city and hospital lists of the mentally deficient, and so the council decided to work for those children who had been bypassed. It turned to the Rev. James M. Finlay, minister pf Carlton Street United Church, who found them a basement room for classes. They dug into their pockets and hired one teacher and an assistant. In September 1951 the first Parents Council nursery school in Canada opened it s doors to ten retarded children between the ages of four and six.

Quarters were crowded, there was little equipment , and public appeals for assistance backfired. One mother recalls “Every time we broadcast an appeal for help, we got more retarded children.” Dr. Finlay found a second room but soon it was full too. Meanwhile, t wo classes for older children had been set up by council members, which meant three separate classes, three sets of equipment, three times as much work.

But the results were encouraging. Craham’s father expresses the feelings of all t he parents when he says: “That first winter, we learned many things:

I that our children could he given some sort of education, although everybody had said they couldn’t, that they could I be disciplined and that they could fit into society.”

After a year it was evident that new and bigger quarters must be found and that a school must be set up. The council was still writing letters, sending delegations to visit government officials and urging that as taxpayers in a democratic society they had a right to expect education for their children, especially as the Carlton Street classes had produced good results. Everybody told them they were right but nobody offered to help. So again it was left to the parents to act.

They heard of an old house on downtown Willcocks Street with three stories, the top one inaccessible except down a hatch. The walls were grimy and cracked, the door hung on rusty hinges and the whole building was badly in need of repair. The council borrowed the one hundred and eightyfive dollars necessary for the first month’s rent and set to work to transform it into a school. “We figured if we couldn’t keep it up we’d get valuable publicity when they tossed us out,” a member explains.

In the weeks that followed, dozens of

parents turned up in aprons and overalls to fumigate and paint. An elderly mother said, “All my life the smell of paint has made me sick, but this time I didn’t mind it so much.” They took off seven layers of wallpaper, scrubbed walls and scoured floors.

Help came now from many sources. The Kinsmen’s Club of Toronto East took on the job of repairing plaster. The Toronto Teachers’ Wives Association bought a sturdy jungle gym for the back-yard playground. A company which employed the father of a retarded child offered to supply the

school with fuel oil, free of charge. A business executive donated an electricrefrigerator, somebody else donated a stove and furniture, and the Toronto Board of Education found teachers and even some old desks that could be used. Parents and friends who could afford to gave money and equipment; others gave time and labor.

Today, ninety-two children between the ages of four and eighteen go to Willcocks School, which is now in its third year. No IQ exceeds fifty; many are well below. They are probably as typical a group of retarded youngsters as you could find, yet like any other children, they are little individuals. Some do not talk at all but make their wants known by gestures; others use a garbled language of their own invention; still others talk well but with a limited vocabulary. Some display the typical thick bodies and protruding tongues of the mongolian type. The arrested development of others is betrayed by a blank expression, an unsteady gait. Some are good-looking children whose only clue to limited intelligence is their constant restlessness. the inability to concentrate for more than a few minutes.

The New Three A’s

Because the Parents Council is anxious to see what pan be done for Retarded children who begin training early, a large number of Willcocks pupils are of nursery-school age. Older boys and girls between the ages of eight and eighteen are mostly in the three senior grades. Seven teachers instruct the children in small classes of not more than seven children to one teacher. The children spend only two and a half hours a day at school, with half attending mornings, the other half afternoons. Some of them are reading from a Grade Two reader with evident enjoyment and understanding. Several who were once thought hopelessly incapable are making progress in reading, printing and simple arithmetic. One eight-year-old boy who did not talk at all three years ago now converses easily. In general, the span of attention has lengthened, speech has improved and response to discipline is better. It is possible that one or two of the best pupils may someday graduate into a regular auxiliary class in publicschool.

Principal Ethel Teasdall, who formerly taught auxiliary classes in London, Ont., says, “We’re out of the experimental stage now. We’ve proved the retarded child can be taught. We use the three A’s—Acceptance, Approval and Affection—and we’ve found they work wonders.”

The big improvement is in socialization-ability of the youngsters to get along with people. Parents and teachers say the children are happier and more sociable since they started to go to school. They get on better at home, fight less with brothers and sisters, appear more relaxed, less frustrated. Some who never did anything in their spare time are now making their first shy requests for pictures, Plasticine, toys and simple jobs around the house “to help Mummy.” They have not beer, transformed into alert boys and girls; they never will be. But severe temper tantrums have almost disappeared and many are sleeping soundly for the first time. As great as the changes worked on the children are the changes worked on the parents, in terms of freedom and perspective.

Few fathers and mothers of normal children realize the emotional strain under which parents of a retarded child labor. Some have even become paranoid; others have entered lasting states of depression. All of them find it hard not to blame themselves for their child’s condition, not to be embarrassed by strangers’ stares, saddened at the taunts of other youngsters, ridden by feelings of remorse and guilt. They may reject the child who is both the cause and the victim of their misery, or try to “make it up to him’’ by overprotection. If there are other children in the family, often they do not receive their share of attention. The home is geared to the moods and needs of the retarded one.

Many parents do not accept the diagnosis of one doctor, or even two or three, that their child is retarded, but go from one medical man to another, using up all their savings, in a hopeless search for assurance the child is normal.

Parents unable or unwilling to place their child in an institution agonize over the problem of what will happen to him when they die. Will his brothers and sisters want to take care of him— and is it fair to ask them? Will he be placed in a mental hospital—and how will he adjust to institutional life after years at home? What should they do? Until the Parents Council came along, these parents had to keep their problems to themselves.

Today, it’s a different and happier story. With the retarded child off to school, even if it’s only for a few hours, a worried mother can find a moment’s peace, catch up on housework, go shopping alone, maybe just sit down to the discovery that life may not be so dismal after all. At Parents Council meetings she and her husband can meet other parents in the same boat. They can discuss problems, compare notes, listen to informed guest speakers and get rid of unhealthy guilt feelings. One of the most interesting speakers was Lee Marino, the father of a retarded child himself and first vice-president of the National Association for Retarded Children (NARC), an American organization which numbers twenty thousand members in twenty - five states.

The seventy parents who turned up in Carlton Street United Church six years ago have swelled into an organization of four hundred, affiliated with the Local Council of Women, maintaining a close relationship with the American Association on Mental Deficiency, and keenly interested in the achievements of NARC, to whose annual convention they send two delegates.

Today six Canadian provinces have parents’ associations—British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Prince Edward Island. In Saint John, N.B., a training school for retarded children is sponsored by Beta Sigma Phi sorority in co-operation with the local mental-health clinic and the pupils’ parents. Quebec has expressed interest in setting up a parents’ group. There’s a strong possibility that provincial groups may merge into a national organization in a few years.

An unexpected boost to the movement came tfeis year when the Ontario Department of Education unexpectedly moved to authorize an annual grant of two hundred and fifty dollars for every child enrolled at a Parents Council school in that province. At present there are Parents Council groups in Hamilton, Barrie, Oshawa, Kingston, Peterborough, Windsor, London, Welland, Niagara Dist., South Waterloo

Dist., Brantford, Simcoe and Sudbury.

What the grant means is evident from the Willcocks Street project. It costs about five hundred dollars a year to train one child there, most of it paying ten taxi drivers who transport the ninety-two children. Until recently, parents paid twenty dollars a month fees, with Parents Council assuming the balance from money it raised at teas, bridges, bazaars and the like. With the grant in effect parents are required to pay only ten dollars a month, which just covers transportation. The council says the grant covers

ninety percent of operating costs exclusive of taxi fares, and sees in it the first real sign of a new deal for the retarded child.

However, there are still problems and they’re not all small ones. Running a nursery class for ten toddlers was one thing; running a full-fledged school for a hundred boys and girls is something else again. Ironically, some of the very mothers and fathers who sparked the council into being six years ago have been unable to reap its benefits. A few have dropped out in disappointment that it is not fulfilling their original

plsi. ;,t free training for every retarded child, regardless of age, IQ, behavior or physical condition. There is some feeling that the Willcocks School is ignoring the older child; that too much emphasis is being placed on academic work and too little on music, hobbies and handicrafts; that even the tendollar taxi fare is too much for some families; and that some children of low IQ are being excluded because the government grant makes a condition that children must “benefit from classroom instruction.”

Miss Teasdall, the principal, offers the explanation that since accommodation is limited it’s only fair that the children who clearly aren’t getting anything out of classes should withdraw in favor of those who can benefit. She says there is little place in the short school day for handicrafts and hobbies; that training at Willcocks is still in the experimental stage; and that a recreational class for older children has recently been organized by council members and meets downtown two afternoons a week.

Many parents have not found the answer to their problems in the Will-

cocks Street School and a great number of retarded children are still exactly where they started - at home all day, without training or companionship. Sympathetic Parents Council members visualize a play centre for these children, possibly beside the school. Right now, though, they’re trying to persuade the city of Toronto to buy them larger quarters to take care of their present waiting list and the expected influx when the Woodgreen experiment comes to an end.

“I suppose our chief problem, as well as our chief blessing, is the parents

themselves,” says Mrs. E. V. Hunt, the council’s 1953 president. “Each retarded child is an individual and each parent therefore has his own ideas on what his own child needs. Training the retarded child is such an intensive problem that it shouldn’t be in our hands at all. It’s too big for us.”

But the fact that the Willcocks Street School exists at all is evidence of the benefits that can be worked by a small group of fathers and mothers with love in their hearts, a glint of determination in their eyes and their shirt sleeves rolled up. ★